On Staying Grounded

This question from John Tropea gave me pause this morning. He’d been viewing the Is KM Dead? video and concluded:

“Imagine there was no such thing as knowledge management. And all through the 1990’s there was only information management, and collaboration spaces, and then 10 years later social computing happened. When you think about it like this, what actually is knowledge management?”

Only for a moment. Because I’m not sure we would have found our way into the social computing groove if we hadn’t made the mistakes of indiscriminate structure and control, and big planned systems that didn’t fit local working needs. I’m taking a leaf out of Henry Petroski’s book Success through Failure here: “No matter how well developed a thing or system becomes, however, it will never be without limitations. There are no mechanical utopias. Therefore, there will always be room for improvement. The most successful improvements ultimately are those that focus on the limitations – on the failures.” (p.3)

That was just stuff we had to go through. We are in danger now of erring too far on the side of fragmentation, millions of chaotic walled gardens which are great for transient awareness but with very few tools or good practices for building solid infrastructure and preserving memory.

The reason why KM happened was that the problem of how organisations can operate coherently and swiftly on large scale became critical to survival. The more connected, competitive, uncertain and fast moving our environment is, the more this problem rears its head. This includes being able to sustain our slow, deep knowledge structures and memory, not just our fast moving current awareness.

Information management and collaboration are just pieces of the puzzle, they don’t get anywhere near its core. It seems to me that unless we collapse into a lower economic energy level, that problem will still press us hard and compel us to respond with a whole slew of practices currently bracketed under KM and associated disciplines.

I’ve been surprised at the popularity of the video discussing the demise of KM with Larry Prusak and Dave Snowden. It’s running at about 300 views per week, not counting the direct downloads. It – and the discussion it has inspired – suggest two things to me:

(1) there is a terrible uncertainty and sense of insecurity within KM (characteristic of thankless infrastructural work, perhaps) leading to perennial self-examination at the risk of neglecting the problems that KM is there to try and solve

(2) that old jackal instinct to distinguish ourselves in the tribe by tearing down the incumbent on the throne, and declaring ourselves as new and different, still survives.

We’re not different from our predecessors. If we survive in the market at all, it’s not through the artfulness of our distinctions or the awesomeness of our weapons, or the perfection of our doctrine. It’s because the market needs something difficult solved, and seeing us, senses something that might help, and however imperfectly, grasps at it. If we all hang in there long enough, expose our experience to critical peer review, and look outward at the problems a little more than inward at self-referential justifications and marketplace powerplays, we might just learn how to get better at addressing the real problems behind knowledge management.


4 Comments so far

Dave Snowden

KM was important in the growth of social computing, but I think you are getting over elaborate in your explanations for the popularity of the video (which is gratifying).  I think its more likely the fact that Larry and I have not appeared together for six years so there is curiosity about that meeting and of course the title is a draw,

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 12:58 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

So you don’t think there is uncertainty and insecurity in the KM space?

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 02:47 PM | Comment permalink

Dave Snowden

Some yes, but “terrible” no and even then I don;t think its the main motivation - but you could ask?

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 09:01 PM | Comment permalink

Keith De La Rue

Your quote from Henry Petroski bears a frightening resemblance to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems…

Posted on July 24, 2008 at 09:51 PM | Comment permalink

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